‘An essentially different kind of rhythm’: Rediscovering Henry Moore’s Sculpture in Wood
One such artist, William George Simmonds (1876–1968), was a close friend of the principal of the Royal College of Art, William Rothenstein (fig.6).21 Simmonds was a sculptor and puppeteer who lived in the village in Gloucestershire where Rothenstein had his country residence.22 Rothenstein commissioned Simmonds to carve a lay figure for the Royal College of Art in 1921 and invited him to teach wood carving in 1924.23 It is uncertain when Simmonds took up this offer but his sculptures, which were chiefly of animal subjects with softly buffed, highly tactile surfaces, were well known in the 1920s and Moore would have seen several examples when visiting Rothenstein’s house in London or at the Tate Gallery, which purchased The Farm Team c.1924–8 in 1929. Moore may also have attended one of Simmonds’ performances with his hand-carved marionettes, which were widely admired in the 1920s and 1930s for their innovative fusion of European and non-European puppet traditions. Another sculptor in wood was Alfred James Oakley (1878–1959), who followed his father’s career as a chair maker in High Wycombe before studying art.24 Alfred settled at 5 Mall Studios in Hampstead in 1922. Five years later, Hepworth and Skeaping moved in next door and Moore was a near neighbour after his marriage to Irina Radetsky in 1929.25 Oakley began exhibiting works in wood at the Royal Academy in 1925 and the following year the Tate Gallery acquired Mamua (fig.7). This was one of a number of Oakley’s wood carvings dating from the second half of 1920s, in which he used the theme of a woman’s head to embody cultural difference. Although some of these sculptures have a decorative quality and lack Moore’s or Hepworth’s nuanced assimilation of African and Oceanic aesthetics, the older artist’s engagement with non-European cultures is nevertheless clear.
Moore’s handling of form and subject in his sculptures in wood show the same careful modulation applied to the context in which the works were exhibited. He avoided domesticated themes like children and animals, instead selecting ambitious fine art subjects but on a scale suited to the home. Between 1930 and 1934 his carvings focused on single, usually upright, female forms. These works continue an idea he explored in Torso 1927 (fig.8) in African Wood (the only sculpture in wood Moore produced between the mid and late 1920s). This three-quarter length headless and armless female form with gentle undulations that hint at breasts and buttocks belongs to a compositional type that had been interpreted by many artists over the preceding decades. Alphonse Legros’s plaster Torso of a Woman 1890 (fig.9) was an important early example belonging to the Victoria and Albert Museum that Moore would have known from his early days at the Royal College.45 British artists, ranging from Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Frank Dobson to scholars at the British School at Rome, such as James Woodford and David Evans, had since reworked the idea, revealing how easily it lent itself to varying degrees of abstraction, while simultaneously invoking allusions to antiquity (a number of similar classical fragments had been excavated by archaeologists).46 Moore found new ways to reinterpret the truncated torso. Carved from boxwood, Figure 1930 has simple knobs and corners that suggest face and limbs without actually delineating them and an arched, cave-like space between the legs. The small boxwood pieces of 1932, Girl and Figure, vary the form by introducing arms and legs (fully separated from the main trunk in the latter work), but any hint of realism is countered by the doll-like scale, diminutive torso, mask-like faces and rigid pose which are more suggestive of a ritual object than a living being. Other pieces of roughly the same date, Figure 1932 (beech wood) and Composition 1933 (lignum vitae), take the composition in a still more playful direction, with the figure occupying uncertain ground between boot, peg, cocoon and phallus.
As the 1930s advanced it was in wood that Moore made important aesthetic experiments. Indeed, one of the major breakthroughs in his practice came in a 1933 carving in walnut titled Composition in which Moore first created holes as a sculptural form in their own right (fig.11). This differed from earlier pieces, which had been pierced to articulate a body’s outline, separating the limbs from the trunk in Figure (boxwood) and Composition (dark African wood), both from 1932. By contrast, the hole in Composition 1933 served a purely sculptural purpose that ‘made the spaces between forms as important as the forms themselves’.49 Coincident with this development Moore’s sculptures hovered more equivocally between representation and abstraction. Composition 1933 could be read as a head with eyes, a headless body with holes for breasts or even a fantastical creature. The year after this, another important departure occurred in Two Forms 1934, made from pynkado wood. Here the spatial opening up of the figure was taken a step further, so that the gaps between forms suggest the physical and emotional relationship of mother (or parent) and child as much as the solid parts of the sculpture. The sense of protectiveness, even anticipation, between the forms is increased by the larger element having a curved edge to the base which gives the viewer the sense that it might lean closer towards the smaller piece. These works have a particular elegance and purity but this was quickly superseded by a group of sculptures with a more rugged, bulky, rooted, functional air. Family 1935 (fig.12) sits squarely on its base. The figures are fully conjoined at the hip (or perhaps the leg or breast – any of these are possible), and the suggestion of a parent and child is made by the sculpture’s upper division into two blocky shapes. From some angles these resemble strangely sturdy ears (almost as if they belonged to an overgrown rabbit) while from others they take on the appearance of the levers or pedals of some primitive mechanical device. This same ambiguity occurs in works from the same year, like Carving (walnut wood) and Carving (African wood), which hover uncertainly between figuration and objects that belong to a pre-industrial past.
How to cite
Ann Compton, ‘‘An essentially different kind of rhythm’: Rediscovering Henry Moore’s Sculpture in Wood’, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www